Issue 5 Online Extra: Media Hype vs Reality Check by Madhav Khandekar

This article is the extended version of the article which featured in The New Idealist Issue Five: Doomsday Edition which you can download here.

Please note: This article was originally published in The New Idealist section of The Intelligent Review site in May 2014 before being transferred to this new site in July 2015.

Earth’s mean surface temperature trend 1997-2012. Data from UK Met Office.
Earth’s mean surface temperature trend 1997-2012. Data from UK Met Office.

The Global Warming-Extreme Weather Link: Media Hype vs Reality Check


We are being bombarded daily with news about extreme weather (EW) events! Are EW events on the rise as most media suggest? Is there a link between EW and Global Warming (GW) as the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), a UN Body of scientists has been claiming in its climate change documents? Let us take a closer look.

A Close Look at Recent EW Events:

The extensive flooding of the Thames River in the UK in January 2014 captured news headlines with many commentators talking about GW-EW link. In reality, such extensive flooding has occurred in the past (UK as whole was wetter in 1929/30 winter season than in January 2014) when GW was not a factor.  Another recent event that captured headlines was the land-falling of typhoon Haiyan (September 2013) in the Philippines causing over 3000 deaths. Once again, the media started pointing out ‘how global warming is making typhoons stronger and more destructive!’

What the media failed to report was that such powerful typhoons have occurred in the past without being triggered by human CO2 emissions. For example, a typhoon TIP which developed over the western Pacific in October 1979 had maximum estimated winds of about 160 knots (~ 190 miles/hr). This was probably the strongest typhoon in the western Pacific in the last 35 years. It is instructive here to note that worldwide tropical cyclone activity in last few years is at a historic low, thus defying projections of more tropical cyclones in a warmer world.

Among other events that garnered media headlines were the US-Midwest heat wave of summer 2012, Russian heat wave (July 2010) and extensive flooding in Pakistan during the summer monsoon of 2010. The heat wave of 2012 over the US was severe, but by no means unprecedented. The Russian heat wave was long and exceptional, leading to over 50,000 deaths; however it was caused by ‘internal atmospheric dynamics’ and not linked to human activity. The extensive flooding in Pakistan was due to a vigorous summer monsoon over NW India which resulted in heavy rains in early August 2010 leading to overflow of dams in Pakistan and eventual flooding causing over 2000 deaths. The unusually hot summer over most of Australia (January 2014) was due to lack of soil moisture for several months prior to summer onset.

Increasing Cold Weather Extremes:

A quick survey of weather extremes suggests that cold weather extremes have increased worldwide since the new millennium. The northern hemisphere has witnessed five severe winters since 2000, with the European Continent bearing the brunt of the winter severity, where several hundred people have died of extreme cold.

The severity of winter 2002/03 killed several hundred people as far south as Bangladesh and Vietnam. The winter of 2011/12 was unusually cold in eastern Europe, leading to several hundred deaths. This past winter (2013/14) has been one of the severest and snowiest over most of North America, which saw several low temperature records broken. In Japan, February 2014 saw two major snowstorms accompanied by severe cold, leading to traffic chaos and hundreds of flight cancellations.

The IPCC science makes no mention of cold weather extremes, while continuing its theme of the climate becoming warmer in future with more “warm weather extremes”. Explaining this year’s winter severity using the argument of a ‘Polar Vortex’ bringing cold air over North America is unconvincing. Cold air outbreaks from the Arctic have occurred in the past, without being triggered by human CO2 emissions.

In Conclusion

The GW-EW link is more perception than reality, this perception being driven by media hype! The earth’s climate will continue to witness warm or cold weather extremes in future, no matter what. Developing early warning systems (through improved forecasting) can help minimize adverse impacts of EW events in future. Reducing atmospheric CO2 will have no impact on future EW events, cold or warm!

Madhav Khandekar is a former scientist from Environment Canada and was an Expert Reviewer for the IPCC 2007 Climate Change Documents. Khandekar has been in the weather & climate sciences for over 55 years and has been on the Editorial Board of the International Journal Natural Hazards (Kluwer Netherlands) since 2000. Khandekar is a lead author on a chapter on ‘extreme weather’ in Climate Change Reconsidered published by the NIPCC (non-Governmental International Panel on Climate Change) September 2013.

Global mean temperature anomalies (base 1961-90) From 1860-2000 (IPCC 2007)
Global mean temperature anomalies (base 1961-90)
From 1860-2000 (IPCC 2007)

Appendix: Notable extreme weather events during the 1945-1977 cooling period

1. 1952-54: An extended drought in conterminous US with October 1952 being the driest month ever recorded, according to the US Weather Bureau.

2. October 1954: Deadliest flood in Canada with over 80 people drowned in southern Ontario due to flooding by remnants of Hurricane Hazel.

3. Summer 1961: India-wide most disastrous floods with heaviest summer monsoon rains during June-September: several hundred people died in floods due to overflowing dams, rivers etc.

4. 1962-63: Exceptionally cold winter in most of Europe with average mean daily temperature anomaly of -4.00 C.

5. May 1968: A cyclone in the Bay of Bengal struck the coast of Myanmar (former Burma), killing over 1000 people; nearby Bangladesh recorded an up to 5m of storm surge (with possible deaths)

6. July 1969: Hurricane Camille (category 4 or 5) slammed into US Golf Coast killing over 250 people.

7. November 13 1970; a tropical cyclone in the Bay of Bengal struck Bangladesh (former East Pakistan) killing over 250,000 people, the largest ever number of human fatalities in one single Extreme Weather event!

8. Summer 1972: Severe drought during an Indian summer monsoon (June- September) leading to sharply reduced rice and other crop harvests; as a consequence India had to import grain for several years.

9. April 1974: Largest outbreak of tornadoes in the US Mid-West in one day (3 April 1974): Over 250 people died with property damage in excess of US$1 billion.

10. December 1976-January 1977: One of the most severe winters in the US and Canada: Buffalo NY recorded several feet of snow. Also the southeastern US recorded extreme cold for several days in January 1977.

This article is the extended version of the piece featured in The New Idealist Issue Five: Doomsday Edition which you can download here.

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